[Beliefnet, March 4, 2001]
A person can only hope to accomplish so much in a lifetime, and of course many of the better discoveries (fire, the wheel, the home Jeopardy game) have already been taken. But I can rest easier now that my own contribution to mankind has been perfected. I have discovered the moral equivalent of oatmeal.
It goes like this. You know that eating oatmeal is the most noble act a human can perform in the course of food consumption. It’s the right thing to do, as some wise man (Copernicus?) once said. This is because, face it, oatmeal is not very appealing. Once in a bowl, it transitions quickly from homey to homely, and in bright morning light is a soggy, depressing mess. What better sight to thrill our sense of duty?
H.H. Munro (pen name: Saki) played with this theme a century ago in his short story “Filboid Studge.” Sales for this mushy cereal boomed when bland, cheery ads were replaced with a depiction of the damned in hell reaching for bowls held just out of reach by fiends. The new slogan ran, “They cannot buy it now.”
Orthodox Christians are quite familiar with oatmeal, since it’s one of the few foods indisputably allowed during the fast. We fast frequently, about half the year in all, including nearly every Wednesday and Friday, seven weeks before Pascha (Easter), six weeks before Nativity (Christmas), and two shorter periods in summer. For us, fasting means abstaining from certain foods: meat, fish, dairy, alcoholic beverages, and olive oil (some say all oils). Oatmeal for breakfast, spaghetti marinara for dinner, and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Over and over again.
So it was on a fast evening not long ago that I was languishing while thoughts of cookies—or better yet, cookie dough‚Ai-danced in my head. Then inspiration struck. What if I made oatmeal, but left out most of the water? Added a little flour? Put in salt, brown sugar, and the pat of margarine I usually would? A few seconds in the microwave, and then a sprinkle of semi-sweet chocolate chips (they’re non-dairy). Voila‚Ai-cookie dough.
Basically, it’s still oatmeal. Anybody who says otherwise can just step outside. And it’s totally fast-worthy. I call it “Virtue Cookies.”
Now, even I knew there was something wrong with this picture. This, naturally, did not stop me from making up a bowlful of Virtue Cookies every night for a week. But somehow I knew it violated the spirit of the fast, that maddeningly amorphous standard that is so clear in hindsight and so foggy when viewed from the front. Technically, the dish contained no forbidden items. What nibbled at my conscience is that it was a treat.
This has been a point of confusion for me ever since I started keeping the fast. Nowhere do the guidelines forbid sweets. But there had to be something wrong when I’d stand in the grocery line and think, “I can’t have a chocolate bar, so I’ll just grab that bag of jelly beans.” Or the time I left a service station with a Moon Pie, delighted that it had no dairy ingredients. (In fact, a Moon Pie probably has no natural ingredients. The whole thing may be a kind of hologram.)
Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth. Surely these letter-of-the-law squeakers can’t be right. But on the other hand, who am I to make up the rules? Do I think I’m smarter than centuries of Orthodox believers before me? Don’t the stories of the Desert Fathers warn against adopting heightened spiritual disciplines, and spurning the humble, communal norm? If the seventh-century authority on asceticism St. John Climacus says that Moon Pies are OK (well, not in so many words), they’re OK.
All this got clearer for me the other night when a non-Orthodox friend was urging us to try her homemade meatballs. “Would God really mind if we had one?” my friend whispered to me. That’s when it hit me: Of course God doesn’t mind. We’re not doing the fasting for God anyway. We do it for ourselves.
We Orthodox routinely use the image of athletics as the analogy for spiritual discipline but don’t always think it through. Like other disciplines, the fast should make us stronger. It should help us peel away our attachment to pet, controllable pleasures that substitute for entering the bracing presence of God.
All joys and pleasures on this earth are hors d’oeuvres, provided as a foretaste of the banquet to come. They let us glimpse where we’re ultimately bound. Only a bad party guest would grab the tray from a passing waiter and hunker in a corner, stuffing every last mushroom cap in her mouth. Yet that’s what we’re tempted to do in this life, because although food, sex, entertainment, and such give only passing pleasure, at least they are under our control. We’d rather chew those crusts than enter the ravishing joy we were made for because, to tell the truth, it’s frightening. In the brilliant light of God, the shadows stand out sharply, and we cannot avoid seeing our own failings and weakness. We see his overwhelming love and know it will not rest until we are wholly transformed, strengthened to endure that consuming fire.
In the end, that is the only real joy there is. In the present, it can seem pretty scary. I’ll take the jelly beans, thank you, and think about all that another time.
Fasting is to transformation as exercise is to an athlete. We try to peel our fingers off certain food favorites and so gain more control over all our greedy impulses. An athlete who lifts weights does so not just to lift weights but to make himself stronger in all circumstances. While other religious traditions restrict certain foods as unclean, that’s not the case for us. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with meat, fish, and dairy foods, or we wouldn’t start eating them again on the holiest days of the year. So you don’t have to scrutinize bread labels for trace elements of dairy whey (unless you find whey a particular temptation).
Fussiness about the letter of the fast can backfire, turning into prideful self-congratulation on one hand and pursuit of yummy loopholes on the other.
Unnecessary, non-nutritious treats don’t suit the fast, even if they are dairy-free. The spirit of the fast, I’m coming to think, is met best by eating simply, eating less, and trying meal by meal to be obedient to the guidelines. Some circumstances may require flexibility, and that is not a catastrophe‚Ai-just a missed opportunity to exercise. Of course, too many “just this onces” make for a roly-poly athlete.
So I can’t really defend Virtue Cookies, even though they technically fit the fast. Perhaps if I left out the flour and chocolate chips, and added more water, and cooked it longer. A bowl of that might be just right for breakfast. Yeah! Nope, sorry. It’s not working. I just can’t work up much enthusiasm anymore for oatmeal. Maybe if I thought of it as “filboid studge.”